Kevin Lin watched as Fang Zhao gazed out the window and drummed his fingers. He couldn't figure out a pattern.
"Homesick?" Kevin Lin asked. From his perspective, Fang Zhao was in his 20s. He was too young, probably unnerved by the experience of leaving home for the first time like the others.
Fang Zhao didn't answer directly. His gaze shifted toward Kevin Lin. "How long until we reach Baiji?"
"We have to meet up with the folks from the other continents assigned to Baiji at the space station first, then we'll head out together. It shouldn't take long. Just head to bed when we board the spacecraft and we'll be there when you get up," Kevin Lin said.
Fang Zhao nodded and pulled out a small paper notebook from his pocket. The notebook had been screened twice when he boarded the flying transport. He had just bought it before leaving for the military base, so it was empty.
Kevin Lin peeked over Fang Zhao's shoulder upon seeing that he was scribbling and didn't seem to mind an audience.
It was indecipherable.
"What are you jotting down?" Kevin Lin asked in a probing tone. "Whatever you put down will have to be vetted by security."
"It's just a musical score. Nothing to hide," Fang Zhao responded.
"A score?" It was an answer that Kevin Lin hadn't expected. He had thought Fang Zhao was writing a diary entry.
All written communications during military service were heavily screened. Diaries were allowed, but they had to be vetted by security, the same with musical compositions. But as long as the content didn't involve any confidential information, there wouldn't be an issue.
"Oh, that's right. I almost forgot you're a composer." Kevin Lin's curiosity was piqued yet again. "That is to say you've found inspiration for a new piece? Are you going to compose the whole thing? You can play it for me."
"I don't have the equipment. I'm just going to jot it down for now and record it after the end of my military service," Fang Zhao responded.
There were no professional musicians or recording equipment on hand. All Fang Zhao could do was record his ideas in his notebook.
"I see." Kevin Lin was very disappointed. He had hoped that Fang Zhao's composing could serve as a gimmick that would attract more viewers. Now that Fang Zhao had vetoed the idea, he could only give up on it too.
Others in the cabin had recovered as well. Now that they were feeling better physically and mentally, they approached Fang Zhao for autographs. Quite a few of them were avid gamers, so of course they knew of Fang Zhao.
One young conscript said he and his cohorts had been very depressed when they'd found out they had been assigned to Baiji, but after Project Starlight had been announced and they'd found out they would be serving in the same location as Fang Zhao, the band of youngsters' spirits had lifted again.
Regardless of whether or not they were fans of Fang Zhao, just the notion that Fang Zhao would be with them made them think that serving on Baiji wouldn't be so bad.
But they didn't have much time to shoot the breeze with Fang Zhao. Their flying transport arrived at the space station shortly after. The captain of their ride to Baiji was already waiting. This batch of soldiers would board the spacecraft soon, along with conscripts from other continents, after a short break.
Fang Zhao was grouped with the highly valued personnel for more comfortable group dynamics. Lab technicians and engineers had no time to follow gaming news. They only had a vague sense of who Fang Zhao was—or thought that he was a total stranger. They wouldn't be as fangirly as the fresh conscripts.
Just as Kevin Lin had said, to save energy, passengers of the spaceship rested in sleeping pods that put them in an unconscious state. By the time they woke up, the ship had arrived at Baiji base.
Fang Zhao had long been awake. The sleeping pod hadn't had much effect on him, but he'd feigned sleep to avoid sticking out. He'd passed time by thinking through some things and composing.
Kevin Lin climbed out of his pod with a yawn. "We're finally there!" He shook his head hard and paused to think. He finally remembered what he had wanted to say to Fang Zhao. "After we settle down, we'll be summoned for mealtime in the cafeteria. This will be broadcast live. It will be quite the scene. I've already gotten approval from the senior officer in Baiji. He said he would make the necessary arrangements, so we don't have worry about their end. What I want to discuss is our end."
Kevin Lin turned serious and continued, "Since this will be a documentary-style show, naturally, we want to cover the raw side of you. Put on a good show in the cafeteria. Conditions are rough on Baiji. The food will definitely pale in comparison to what you have had in Qi'an, but no matter how disgusting the food is, you cannot show any sign of disgust. It's normal to take time to get used to the new diet, so you don't have to finish your entire meal. Just eat one-third. But do whatever it takes to finish that one-third, then you can stop. I'll shift the camera to somewhere else."
Kevin Lin was thinking that he himself couldn't get used to the food on Baiji right away, let alone Fang Zhao. It would be impossible for Fang Zhao to finish his entire portion. He just had to pretend to eat.
This wasn't a big deal for Kevin Lin, but he was worried that Fang Zhao was too young and would have a lower tolerance than the professional actors among the five celebrities. It would turn viewers off if he showed resentment toward the diet here.
Even though Kevin Lin didn't like Fang Zhao and was a bit p*ssed off and was even looking down on him a bit because he was the least famous of the five celebrities taking part in Project Starlight, Kevin Lin wouldn't go so far as screwing Fang Zhao over. What would he gain from it? They were in the same boat.
The conscripts headed to their assigned rooms, tidied up, and then were summoned for food in the cafeteria.
Punctuality was a major requirement of military life. Even the lazy bones among the conscripts knew they couldn't screw up this one. Regardless of whether or not they were done unpacking, the new arrivals dropped what they were doing, got dressed, and headed to the cafeteria.
Fang Zhao and Kevin Lin also headed over.
In this instance, Fang Zhao wasn't grouped with the highly valued personnel. He resumed his role as a regular conscript, heading to the section in the base cafeteria allocated for conscripts' use.
Kevin Lin followed the crowd as he gave Fang Zhao the quick lowdown on the Baiji base.
"You don't have to worry about anything else here. The base is very secure. As a regular conscript, what you need to remember is that there are two types of digestive tolerance you must develop." Kevin Lin had done quite a bit of homework to earn his assignment. He shared this background information with Fang Zhao as well. "The first is cultivating a strong stomach. You need to be able to process whatever the base feeds you without developing allergic reactions or puking it up. The second type of tolerance is being able to eat anything. You must be able to ingest all edible organisms on the planet, regardless of what they look like, what kind of texture they have, or what they taste like. In other words, not only do you need a strong stomach, you must develop a wide-ranging appetite."
Most undeveloped planets suffered from a rough geological landscape. The variety of plant species was limited, and yet the bases grew larger despite being allocated limited resources. It made sense to go exploring for new food sources to meet daily needs. Anything that wasn't poisonous and could be digested by humans could be turned into food. Anything could appear on the dining table.
After entering the cafeteria, Fang Zhao and Kevin Lin found their seats under many watchful gazes.
Mealtimes weren't tied to people, but to specific times. When it was time for a meal, regardless of what you were doing, regardless of whether your delay was justified, latecomers wouldn't be allowed to set foot in the cafeteria.
Kevin Lin launched into a detailed analysis. "The base won't treat us too poorly. So many people are tuning in to the live webcast, and there are many former government officials watching. Folks at the Baiji base will probably want to save face. I'm sure the food will be horrible, but it won't be as bad as the standard fare here. It's gotta be a little better."
But not long after Kevin Lin uttered these words, he was immediately contradicted.
After setting up the camera angle, Kevin Lin was about to duck out of sight to enjoy his last few moments of freedom when the bell in the cafeteria rang. The bustling cafeteria died down, and the robot servers delivered plates of weird-looking meals to their places.
"Are those... plates of bugs?"
The discussion forum for S5 had already lit up.
"F*ck! What is that?"
"Bugs! They're actually having bugs!"
"They... they don't seem well-cooked."
"So disgusting. Couldn't they process the bugs first?"
"You're so ignorant. It was the same deal when I served. The species was different, but we had bugs all right. As for whether they should be processed, nonsense. Who has the manpower and energy to process food? You might as well save the energy to do some more mining and research."
Kevin Lin remembered he was on camera, so he suppressed his disgust and tried hard to appear calm. When he'd served in the military, his assigned location hadn't been that far flung. He came from a well-to-do family. His parents had worked their connections and greased the wheels. Even though conditions had been tough, he'd had it easy compared to his fellow conscripts. Little had he expected that he would be punished this time around, but as a journalist with professional ethics, Kevin Lin still kept his disgust tightly under wraps.
He remembered that Fang Zhao was next to him, and he glanced over worriedly.
There was no sign or disgust, rejection, or anger on Fang Zhao's face. Instead, he was oozing curiosity.
When he saw Fang Zhao's reaction, Kevin Lin secretly breathed a sigh of relief and gave him a mental thumbs up. Impressive, kid! Such great acting! Impeccable. The curiosity is a nice touch.
Fang Zhao didn't know what was going on inside Kevin Lin's head. He calmed down after his curiosity and surprise at this novel course—a plate of roasted bugs—tapered off.
Fang Zhao was someone who had endured genuine hardship in his past life. Something trifling like this wouldn't bother him. He raised his fork unceremoniously, poked at one of the bugs, and studied it carefully. He recalled the biology knowledge a lab technician had passed on when he'd served in the Yanzhou military district: "Invertebrate, arthropod, diploboda."
Kevin Lin: "..."
The online audience: "..."
You're actually composed enough to classify the f*cker!